Edwin Lopez, a rookie California Highway Patrol officer, this week returned to a south Sacramento park where, all too recently, he used to live and sleep when he was homeless.
“This is the first (time) I’ve been back since then,” said Lopez, 26, recalling his personal odyssey from extreme poverty back to gainful employment. “I’ve shed a few tears reflecting on what I’ve been through.”
What Lopez has been through, when juxtaposed with who he is now, is not just a Horatio Alger story of overcoming hardship. It’s not just a story of a man who, a little more than four years ago, badly needed help and now has dedicated his life to helping others as a CHP officer.
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Lopez’s story exemplifies how easily one can slip into homelessness in California and how hard it can be to escape it.
He knows what it’s like to dumpster dive, to be assaulted when sleeping outside, to ask complete strangers for food and water, to routinely feel unsafe. Lopez lived all of that and more in the seven or so months he was homeless in 2012 after losing his job in an Elk Grove tire store, and then his apartment, and then his car, which was repossessed.
Lopez became homeless because of cascading economic circumstances. He didn’t have a college degree to broaden his job prospects and he didn’t realize how vulnerable his minimum wage job was to the type of downsizing common in the American economy for the last decade.
California has the highest rate of homelessness of any state and accounts “for nearly half of all unsheltered people in the U.S.,” according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Cities across the state, including Los Angeles and Oakland, recently have reported a sharp increases in homelessness. The next census for Sacramento’s homeless population is expected to arrive early next week, and city officials suspect it will show a spike here as well.
Part of that has to do with an increase in housing costs as well as a lack of supportive services. For Lopez, his family wasn’t in a position to support him and, being 21 at the time, he was too proud to ask for help or share how badly his economic prospects had become.
Slowly, the strands to his social safety net began to sever. After losing his apartment, he “couch surfed” with friends for as long as he could. Then he slept in his car. “I would try to find nice neighborhoods but park in areas where people wouldn’t call the cops on me.”
But they did, and Lopez was awakened more than once by Sacramento cops tapping on his windshield. “They would ask, ‘Are you between homes, sir?’ ” Lopez would say he was on a long distance drive and had pulled over because he was tired.
Then his car was repossessed. Then he was on the street.
He was homeless while on active duty in the California Army National Guard, Lopez said. He tried to find work but that became increasingly difficult the longer he went without shelter. “I had a lot of people who had ‘Help Wanted’ signs tell me they weren’t hiring, probably because I looked homeless,” he said.
Meanwhile, he slept in construction sites. He slept in bushes. Or he would spread out his old clothes and sleep on the floor of public bathrooms. “It didn’t work out too well,” he said. The stench would keep him awake.
Despite his plight, Lopez remained optimistic. “I’ve never been a person to complain about my life,” he said. “Even when I was homeless, I tried to look at positive things. I would say, ‘I’m homeless, but I could be dead. I could be addicted to drugs or alcohol. I could get an infection from all the horrible living I’m going through, but I haven’t.’
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“Other than I was starving, that was my blessing,” he continued. “That attitude is what got me out of it.”
But not before the streets exacted a price from Lopez. He liked to sleep at North Laguna Creek Park on Jacinto Avenue in south Sacramento because he was familiar with the neighborhood, having lived nearby. “The park has benches with an awning where you could sleep when it was raining,” he said.
One night, Lopez said, he was attacked by a group of teenagers while he slept. He ended up with bruises and cuts on his face but was able to fight them off. “There were five or six of them,” he said. “I hurt a few of them. That’s what got them off of me.”
It was at that point, Lopez said, that his circumstances began to wear him down. “I had really bad depression for a while,” he said. “It never got to the point where I was suicidal, but I was in a really bad depression. I did a lot of praying. I would say, ‘God, I don’t know what lesson you are trying to teach me, but I learned my lesson.’ ”
Salvation came when Lopez shared his story with a friend in the National Guard, he said. That friend hooked up with a jobs service assisting veterans. That led to an opportunity with the California Conservation Corps.
Although he had lost most of his possessions, he had kept his cellphone, even though paying the monthly $50 bill often meant going without food. But “I knew I couldn’t get a job if the outside world couldn’t reach me,” he said.
When the CCC called and invited him to interview, he jumped at the chance. He showered and shaved by slipping into a gym and bumming razors off strangers. Before the meeting, he thought: “If I don’t get this job, I could end up dead.”
Lopez remembers the interview going well. The CCC called back the next day and offered him a position doing fire clearance. He could either start in a few months or a few days. He chose a few days.
Working with the CCC, which provides food, clothing and a stipend, got him back on his feet. Then he applied to the CHP. He said he previously had thought about a career in law enforcement, but because he was making money at the tire store, he didn’t apply when he turned 21, the minimum age for the CHP. Not long after, he was on the streets.
Lopez passed all the CHP’s tests. He met the minimum educational requirement of having a high school equivalency. His criminal record was clean. Background checks by the CHP revealed that Lopez had worked to pay the debts he had incurred when his life crashed.
“(The vetting process) is an intrusive look at who you are, and everyone we talked to liked him,” said Joseph Farrow, CHP commissioner. “He had overcome so much with perseverance. He was trustworthy. Here is a guy who was homeless, and all he wants to do is to help people.”
Lopez’s CHP colleagues have taken note of his uncommon story as well. He was singled out by his superiors during his CHP Academy graduation ceremony this past November in West Sacramento. He carried the American flag during the ceremony.
“When he tells his story, even hardened officers say, ‘Wow,’ ” Farrow said.
Like all new officers, Lopez is on probation for the first year, meaning his job won’t be permanent until he reaches the anniversary date in mid-November. He’s not worried, though. The rigors of his chosen profession are nothing when compared to what he endured.
“Whenever I doubt myself now I think, ‘You used to eat garbage,’ ” he said. “There is not much worse you can go through.”
Sacramento Bee photographers found a few people willing to tell us why they are homeless. Video by Hector Amezcua, Randall Benton and Jose Villegas.Produced by Sue Morrow